How fermentation holds the secret of plant collagen

When surprised, a silver carp can dive 10 feet into the air, scaring boaters, swimmers, skiers and anyone else on or in the water. For this reason, many see them as a nuisance and a danger. For others, fish are conservation heroes. (In 2009, thousands of people were released into China’s fragile Yangtze River to restore balance to the ecosystem.) But for some, silver carp are neither a danger nor a savior of the environment. Decades ago, the species represented a golden scientific opportunity for researchers at Gdansk University.

In the 1990s, Polish chemists removed collagen from the skin of silver carp. Their groundbreaking research led to new methods of collagen extraction and ultimately the widespread use of protein as a highly effective and skin-firming cosmetic ingredient. Just three decades after their pioneering research, collagen in the global beauty industry is worth billions of dollars.

The skin firming abilities of collagen make it a popular beauty ingredient. | Tanja Ivanova / Getty

Why care for the fish? Building a collagen beauty market

Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body. It’s often called our glue because, essentially, it holds us together. “Collagen is mainly found in our skin, ligaments, bones, joints, teeth and also in the gastrointestinal tract. It’s basically a support structure that keeps the skin firm, ”says dermatologist Dr. Hope Mitchell. “It’s stronger than steel.”

As we age, our collagen production slows down and our skin loses its elasticity. To combat the signs of aging, many seek collagen in skin care products and supplements, perceiving them as a kind of fountain of youth. To give you an indicator of its popularity: the global collagen industry should be worth more than $ 16 billion by 2028.

Collagen doesn’t just come from fish, it also comes from bovine and porcine sources. But marine collagen is widely considered to be the most effective. Due to the smaller particle size, fish collagen can be absorbed up to 1.5 times more efficiently in the human body. (These days, freshwater fish, such as shark catfish and tilapia, are the most common sources of marine collagen.) However, bovine is also common in the collagen industry because it is cheaper. For the most part, it is a by-product of the animal husbandry industry, extracted from the remains of cow skin and bones.

A woman applying skin care in the bathroom
The collagen craze is linked to the growth of the anti-aging market. | Ron Lach / Pexels

The consequences of society’s obsession with “anti-aging” products

The collagen craze comes as no surprise: Society is obsessed with anti-aging, even if that means smearing fish or cow guts all over our faces. The term itself is controversial. In 2017, the beauty magazine Allure banned in its pages, former editor Michelle Lee said using it meant “subtly reinforcing the message that aging is a condition we need to fight.” After all, not everyone gets old. And to achieve this is, in fact, a privilege that must be celebrated. But whether you agree with the use of the term “anti-aging” or not, there is no doubt that the industry targeting wrinkle reduction with moisturizers and serums is gaining momentum. By 2030, it is expected to exceed $ 422 billion.

While this seems like a fairly modern concept, helped by social media and celebrity culture, humanity’s obsession with looking eternally young dates back thousands of years. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), for example, imperial wife Yang Yuhuan was considered one of China’s greatest beauties. She too opted for anti-aging remedies, regularly consuming donkey skin collagen in soup form, known as Eijao, believing it would keep her skin glowing and youthful.

Centuries later, the demand for collagen is going nowhere. But with a market of this size, there are ethical complications to consider. Silver carp can be considered a nuisance, but they experience pain. As well as cows, yaks, bison, pigs and all the other animals used for their bones. And there is also a huge problem in terms of durability. According to the United Nations, animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It is also a major contributor to other environmental problems, including soil erosion, deforestation and ocean dead zones.

Orora Skin Science Plant Collagen
Orora Skin Science uses HumaColl21 in its beauty products. | Orora

The sustainable and animal-free future of collagen

But back in the lab, scientists are making significant progress on the University of Gdansk’s breakthrough in the ’90s. And it looks like the collagen of the future doesn’t come from animals at all.

In 2019, California-based biodesign company Geltor launched HumaColl21, a bioidentical, animal-free form of human collagen for use in the skin care industry. Produced by plant-based bacterial fermentation, HumaColl21 (ingredient name sh-Polypeptide-121) does everything animal-derived collagen does, without approaching a living creature. “It’s an exact match with a form of collagen naturally produced in the human body,” says cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos.

This year, it is available for the first time in the North American skin care market. (Although collagen can be consumed via supplements, Dobos and Mitchell agree that topical application is more effective. “It penetrates the dermis and stimulates fibroblasts, the most common cells in our connective tissue, to produce collagen. Mitchell explains.)

Orora Skin Sciences uses HumaColl21 in two of its beauty products. And for product manager Leslie Iddison, the ingredient’s durability and vegan credentials meant choosing it over conventional collagen was a given. She said, “It has not only been proven in clinical trials to have amazing results, but it’s ethical and leaves our environmental resources intact.”

For Orora CEO Peter B. Lee, it was scientific advancements, similar to those currently being made in the plant-based food industry by brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, that led him to the creation by Geltor. “We have taken a close look at the skin care industry,” he said. “And we realized we could be the catalyst for a similar revolution.”

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